By Geoffrey Miller

The hardest part of studying intellectual history is trying to imaginatively enter the closed system of how people of another time and place thought. A medieval European, for example, understood the universe in terms mainly set out in scripture. The Bible was the ultimate authority, and nothing the book of nature or experience taught was ever going to change that.

Every period holds certain truths to be self-evident. We have a more modern set of beliefs than Europeans living 500 years ago, but our systems of thought are just as closed. We may even recognize this, but don’t worry about it since (of course) what we believe is not some idle superstition or revealed faith but only what is demonstrably right. In particular, there is no arguing today with the wisdom of pop Darwinism and free market economics. Evolutionary psychology has taken its place alongside liberal economics to form the dominant intellectual framework of our time. We simply cannot think outside the unified paradigm they combine to provide: That we are all individuals motivated by our selfish genes to compete with each other in a battle for the good things in life, the end of such struggle being, like God’s creation, a best-of-all-possible worlds at the end of history which will look pretty much like the way we live now in North America.

In Spent, Geoffrey Miller breezily describes how this works, explaining consumerist capitalism in terms of evolutionary psychology. What evolutionary, and revolutionary, forces have wrought is the triumph of the market: “the most important invention of the past two millennia,” “the most dominant force in human culture” today, and “the most ingenious system yet devised for people to enjoy mutual gains from trade under conditions of peace, freedom, and autonomy.” Markets also represent democracy in action, and have “the power to make our means of production transform the natural world into a playground for human passions.” That is, to build Jerusalem.

The only flaw in the system, and it’s really a rather minor one, is that people still don’t fully understand the psychology of consumerism. The key point to grasp here has to do with signal theory: the idea that the things we buy are meant to function as displays of our biological fitness. As it turns out, most of these signals are overpriced and even redundant when they aren’t simply misleading. Our paleomind is a quite sophisticated instrument for seeing through all the bling. And so we really just have to tweak the system a bit, learn to recognize and pay more attention to signals of personality type and let markets operate more freely and efficiently. In the latter instance models for the New Jerusalem already exist: Hong Kong, Silicon Valley, Switzerland. After all, while the economy may rise and fall “the market lives on” eternally. And human nature is not going to change so that we stop wanting to flaunt our fitness through social indicators. These are the given boundaries of our evolutionary and intellectual horizons.

And maybe Miller is right in all of this. He is certainly into practicing what he preaches. For flaunting and preening he is without rival. He even tosses in a biographical sketch at the end of Chapter Two – ostensibly to be candid about possible biases and blind spots, though he doesn’t admit to any. Along the way he wants us to know what car he drives, what music he likes to listen to, and how he votes. He lists his likes and dislikes as though filling out a dating profile. The bibliography, or suggestions for further reading, has a separate section that appears to be a complete listing of all of his own academic writings – even those that haven’t been published yet! Also included are novels and movies that one guesses he is including as a way of displaying his own cultural tastes since what you are going to learn about consumer psychology from Douglas Coupland’s Miss Wyoming or the 1983 re-make of Scarface is beyond me.

Though maybe that’s not the point. My guess is that we are supposed to read Spent less as a treatise on the culture of capitalism than as a guide to self-improvement. Play your cards right and you might someday evolve into . . . Geoffrey Miller!

Review first published online April 19, 2010.